Hispanic immigrants playing more critical role in Michigan’s farm economy

When nearly 200 unaccompanied children from Central America were brought to Michigan for settlement last summer, angry protests greeted their arrival. Protesters voiced concerns about disease and gang violence, with some worrying that the newcomers would one day take employment away from job-seeking Americans.

“This places without question many Michigan families in harm’s way,” said Tom Wassa, who ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat last summer.

But a number of national and local studies show that Hispanic immigrants, many of them undocumented, play a crucial role in Michigan’s farm economy ‒ planting seeds, picking fruit, driving tractors and packaging goods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 71 percent of crop workers surveyed nationally between 2007 and 2009 were foreign born. And that number is growing.

Meanwhile, rural populations are aging and shrinking in communities across America. As farmers in these regions become older, Latin American immigrants figure to play a larger role in the agricultural sector.

A Michigan Farm Succession Study conducted in 2012 by Michigan State University found that only 38 percent of Michigan farmers planning to retire within the next 10 years will pass their farms on to a single heir.

Statewide, noncitizen farm owners (predominantly hailing from Mexico or Central America) represent 28 percent of Michigan’s 56,000 farms, which generate annual sales of $5.8 billion. According to Ruben Martinez at the Julian Samora Research Institute, an Hispanic research center connected with MSU, Hispanic farmers are becoming involved in buying blueberry farms in southwest Michigan.

Other states are creating economic incentives to attract immigrants to rural areas. Iowa, for instance, allocated a $50,000 grant to three rural counties to help attract immigrants.

Jacob Wheeler lives in Traverse City, where he publishes the Glen Arbor Sun and Betsie Current newspapers. From 2004-2006 he lived in Guatemala, where he wrote Between Light and Shadow (2011, University of Nebraska Press), a narrative nonfiction book about the country’s adoption industry.

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